When it comes to romantic relationships, there are wide misconceptions surrounding the disability community. Myths such as being fragile or a burden, being unable to have a physical relationship, or not leading normal everyday lives are all barriers that disabled people must combat when first getting to know a potential partner. With these fallacies circulating, the disabled person’s search for love can often prove challenging, navigating how to balance the need for understanding and acceptance surrounding the disability with the need and desire to be treated the same as anyone else. What is important to remember is that while there are some unique issues to consider when dating a person with a disability, their overall roles, needs, and desires in relationships are very much the same as everyone else. Whether a couple is able-bodied, disabled, or one of each, romantic relationships are widely varied, but the way they are universal is in the ups and downs that are inevitable and the give and take that makes them last.

Though 40-year-old Rocky is now happily married to his husband Jimmi, he is no stranger to adversity in the dating world. Being a gay man with spina bifida, his road to love was not always an easy one. Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, Rocky not only had to navigate being gay in a less accepting society, but also determine how he would approach sharing intimate, health-related details of his life with a potential partner. A common dilemma amongst disabled people, it is difficult to determine how much is appropriate and necessary to share upfront. For Rocky, it was easier to be candid almost immediately. “I found, through previous relationships, that it was important to mention the spina bifida and some of the more intimate details early on. This helps you rule out who is capable of handling it.” Beth, also 40 and married to Chuck, 45, agrees. “I was always upfront with Chuck about having spina bifida. Why hide it? Spina bifida is a part of me. It’s not who I am though. Chuck knew I was adventurous and didn’t let spina bifida stop me from trying new things. He was open about getting to know the real me before making any conclusions about me. True friends and potential spouses will get to know the real you first. The questions regarding spina bifida tend to come later.”

Newlyweds, Beth and Chuck first began talking 8 years ago when Chuck messaged Beth through Facebook. Having mutual friends, they already knew they had some things in common, but it wasn’t until their first date at the Air Force Museum that they really got to know one another. Over dinner, they realized they shared many common interests including hiking, dinner parties, playing cards, and traveling. From the beginning, it was clear to Beth that her being in a wheelchair was of little consequence to Chuck. He saw her for her kind heart and courageous spirit. Always one to push herself and try new things, Beth states, I try my best to not let spina bifida control my life really. I have always been the adventurous person. I love to try and do new things. Chuck says that is one thing he loves about me. I won’t hesitate to try something new. If something does become hard for me to accomplish, Chuck is there to help me adapt to the environment. I feel spina bifida is just coming along for the ride honestly.”

For Rocky, open communication and being himself has always been an integral part of his relationship with Jimmi. Not one to shy away from uncomfortable conversations, Rocky asserts, “You need to put yourself out there. You need to be vulnerable. You need to be honest and know that rejection WILL happen. You need to communicate and be who you are. You cannot settle. Keep your individuality.” But like with any couple, communication sometimes comes with bumps in the road. Having talked to Jimmi for 4 years before they actually met, Rocky learned that when explaining some of the more personal details of his spina bifida, it was important to offer enough information to allow Jimmi to fully understand his disclosures. When a person has lived with their disability for their entire life, it is easy to forget that an able-bodied person might not be familiar with condition-related terminology or the medical cause of certain symptoms or behaviors. Over time, Jimmi began to do research on his own to better understand Rocky’s spina bifida and continuously proved he was committed to him by not only being his life partner, but being involved in his care. 11 years later, they are happily married and raising three boys part-time.

For both couples, being involved with the Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati has helped them to find community, feel empowered, and navigate the effects of spina bifida on their relationship. Beth, who currently sits as the Chair of the Board of Directors, has been involved for several years, sitting on multiple committees in this role. Rocky is currently the Chair of the Program Committee and has held several positions throughout his decade long involvement with the organization. His husband, Jimmi, has also found a way to get involved and support his partner by joining the Board as a spouse representative, bringing a fresh perspective to discussions.

Both Rocky and Beth recognize that while their relationships are unique in some aspects such as needing a bit more planning and flexibility at times, they are very comparable with able-bodied relationships. Everyone comes with a bit of “baggage” that their partner will need to adjust to. Like any couple, there will be arguments, disappointments, and failures. But there will also be growth, new adventures, and happy memories made. The foundations for every healthy relationship, regardless of ability, are communication, compromise, and trust. Knowing that no one is invincible, that anyone can become sick or disabled at any moment, reminds us that in searching for a partner, the qualities that matter most lie in their character.